Nineteen years removed from the game’s initial release on the PlayStation 2, there is not a lot that hasn’t been said about the now-legendary Silent Hill 2. Releasing just shy of two years after the original title was unveiled for the PlayStation 1, Silent Hill 2 finds itself in the strange realm of being not specifically a sequel, but also not opting to be a full-on remake of the original. Rather, it takes the thematic through-line of the original, along with the gameplay aspects and the overall aesthetic, and enhances them for the improved technology of the PlayStation 2.
The game has been celebrated for its mature tone and deep metaphorical elements, allowing for expansive analysis into the game’s story for almost the last two decades. Yet, one sometimes can neglect the main draw of the game—it is absolutely terrifying to play.
Finding itself often placing at the very top of “Scariest Games of All Time” lists, Silent Hill 2 has certainly garnered a reputation that is hard to live up to. Horror is subjective; what might shake someone to their very core may just as easily take someone else to the point of laughter. So how does Silent Hill 2 find itself still holding the legendary status it has amongst nearly all who play it? Perhaps it is through the way it presents itself as a game that manages to create the feeling of something that every single person cannot escape their fear of: a nightmare.
Silent Hill 2 follows the journey of James Sunderland, who receives a letter from his deceased wife Mary, where she seemingly invites him to return to their “special place,” located in the town of Silent Hill—a location they both visited often before Mary’s illness struck. Without divulging too many plot specifics, James finds himself slowly losing his sanity as he ventures deeper into the lifeless town, being forced by the few people he encounters (and the town itself) to face his inner demons. As brief an explanation as that is, that is ultimately the premise that carries the game through its swift eight hour length, allowing the player (along with James) to discover more about the town and the few who find themselves wandering its fog-covered streets.
The story of the game immediately presents the feeling that comes from a nightmare, introducing James to the player with a brief narration that set the wheels in motion while also providing very little backstory for both James and Mary—much like one would experience when finding themselves in the midst of a night terror. Of course, dreams and nightmares differ for everyone, but it is hard to ignore some key characteristics that Silent Hill 2 shares with those experienced when we sleep.
The concept of dreams, on a general level, have been theorised to be the brain working through elements of reality, with some believing the dream or nightmare reflects the struggles of the individual. To put it lightly, James has enough skeletons in his closet to keep his brain occupied for some time. That aside, Silent Hill 2 expertly takes the nightmare James is living and allows the player to feel just as trapped in it.
Continuing forward with this dream logic theory, the town of Silent Hill and the game itself use every tool they can to push these nightmarish qualities, perhaps no where clearer than in one of the most prominent aspects: the enemies. The monsters faced within Silent Hill 2 certainly check the box of being horrifying on a surface level, appearing disfigured and grotesque, proving to be formidable foes in terms of being able to take fair chunks of health from the player if they are not careful. Yet they also serve as one of the most genius aspects of the game design, with each enemy having distinct ties to James’ inner psyche—something that may not be clear to a player during their first playthrough of the game.
Detailing how each monster relates to James would ultimately be a disservice to the game and would detract from a new player’s experience. However, the enemy type known as the Lying Figure is one of the more prominent enemies in the game, as well as being a useful example of this reference to dream logic (without divulging in spoilers). Appearing as a disfigured faceless body trapped within a straitjacket consisting of their own flesh, the Lying Figure on the most basic (and spoiler-free) level represents James’ feeling of entrapment both within his mental-state and, of course, the town itself. As mentioned, the way in which a nightmare may or may not represent the individual’s daily struggles is entirely up for debate, but it is clear that the combination of the enemies’ visual horror and their deeper meaning perpetuate a feeling of uneasiness for the player.
The overall world construction at play in Silent Hill 2 also lends itself to feeling nightmarish quite substantially, creating a setting that, while coherent in its layout, feels disjointed from any semblance of reality. The very first item that a player has the chance to pick up is the map of the town, with each street clearly labelled in a grid like fashion. Yet, as the player progresses further into the game, locations increasingly begin to drift further from reality, with the Silent Hill Historical Society location being the most useful example. James ventures through the town and eventually finds the building in question which, while functioning as a form of museum that contextualises some of the town’s history, also serves as a key shift in the game.
While not being quite as excessive as the infamous ladder climb from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, James descends a lengthy set of stairs that lead the player not only to the next location of the game, but also deeper into the nightmare. Now, not to say that the earlier portions of the game were playing with a rainbow palette, but upon James’ descent into Toluca Prison and the labyrinth, the tone of the game and world design are amplified. The colours appear muted, with the darkness that defines so many areas of the town becoming increasingly apparent. The prison also features Silent Hill 2 potentially at its most obvious, as the player quite literally plunges with James through holes in the ground, descending deeper into the prison.
Anyone who knows the sensation of waking from a nightmare can relate to the feeling of the terror exponentially increasing, before reaching the point that you have no choice but to wake. Many other horror games do opt to ramp up the action as the game heads towards a conclusion, with even the excellent Resident Evil 2 remake eventually leaning towards a far more action oriented final act when compared to earlier ones. While Silent Hill 2 does ramp up quite extensively once the player has entered the prison, it is done by taking the elements that were drip fed beforehand and methodically expanding upon them. The number of enemies begins to increase, the world increasingly falls apart on itself, and James’ psyche grows more unstable, with many of his secrets being finally unravelled… except James does not have the luxury of waking up.
To say that we have not even scratched the surface of the inner workings of Silent Hill 2 is a gross understatement. This game holds such a legendary status for an abundance of reasons, and to give them all away would be cruel. It is a game that so expertly crafts a strange and terrifying world that certainly lifts from the works of David Lynch and the film Jacob’s Ladder, while also being fully realised in every way.
If you have somehow avoided it for all these years, take the plunge with James into a nightmare world that will stay with you forever.